Election Parliamentary Elections 2012 in Slovakia

Self-restraint will be the key test of Fico’s second government. Fico has periodically demonstrated an ability to take the long view, but Slovakia’s first single-party parliamentary majority will produce strong temptations to opt for short-term institutional gains for himself and financial gains for his supporters. If Fico can resist those temptations, he may secure for himself a long future in politics and a place in Slovakia’s history. If he cannot, then in 2016 he may again find himself on the losing end of electoral calculations.

Published on balticworlds.com on May 3, 2012

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Slovakia’s 2012 election never seemed to hold much room for surprise.  The Wall Street Journal forecast Slovakia Center-Left Party Headed for Election Victory, the Financial Times watched as Slovakia coalition heads for defeat and nearly every major newspaper said the same thing: power in Slovakia would change hands from right to left on March 10, 2012.  And so it did.  But a look inside Slovakia’s election reveals a far more interesting story and offers a few insights into 21st century-style democracy, even for those who have little interest in Slovakia itself.

What happened in the election? 

The left won; another new “party” erupted; everybody else lost

The table below presents the basic results of Slovakia’s 2012 election.

Table 1. Election Results in Slovakia 2012

Party Name Acronym Number of votes Share of votes Change in share of votes Number of seats Share of seats Change in share of seats
Direction-Social Democracy Smer-SD 1,134,280 44.4% +9.6% 83 55.3% +14.0%
Christian Democratic Movement KDH    225,361 8.8% +0.3% 16 10.7% +0.7%
Ordinary People and Independents OĽaNO    218,537 8.6% +8.6% 16 10.7% +10.7%
Bridge Most-Híd    176,088 6.9% -1.2% 13 8.7% -0.7%
Slovak Democratic and Christian Union SDKÚ    155,744 6.1% -9.3% 11 7.3% -11.3%
Freedom and Solidarity SaS    150,266 5.9% -6.3% 11 7.3% -7.3%
Slovak National Party SNS    116,420 4.6% -0.5% 0 0.0% -6.0%
Party of the Hungarian Coalition SMK    109,483 4.3% -0.0%      
99% 99%      40,488 1.6% +1.6%      
People’s Party-Our Slovakia LSNS      40,460 1.6% +0.3%      
Democratic Union of Slovakia DUS      33,155 1.3% +1.3%      
Party of Free Speech of Nora Mojsesova SSS-NM      31,159 1.2% +1.2%      
Movement for a Democratic Slovakia HZDS      23,772 0.9% -3.4%      
Communist Party of Slovakia KSS      18,583 0.7% -0.1%      
Nation and Justice NaS      16,234 0.6% +0.6%      
Party of Greens of Slovakia SZS      10,832 0.4% +0.4%      
Others (less than .4%)      52,864 2.1%        
Total 2,553,726 100.0   150 100.0  
Source: Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic, http://www.statistics.sk

In context these results reflect five distinct patterns:

  • The stabilization of turnout:  Although many pollsters and political scientists predicted a significant drop in turnout because of disillusionment created by corruption allegations, turnout actually rose (very slightly) to 59.1%.  As in 2010 and in previous elections, turnout was higher in the north and central regions of the country and in the capital.
  • The victory of left over right: For the first time in the country’s history a single party—the left-leaning Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD)—won a clear majority in the elections: 44.4% of the vote and 55.3% of the 150 seats in Slovakia’s parliament. Smer’s leader, Robert Fico, returned as prime minister after a two-year interlude of government by a four-party right-leaning coalition that took power in Slovakia in 2010 but collapsed over internal disagreements culminating in a no-confidence vote related to the Greek bailout.
  • The emergence of new competitors on the right:  As in nearly every Slovak election, a newly created party—the evocatively named “Ordinary People and Independents” (OĽaNO)—crossed  the 5% threshold into parliament.  In other right wing parties, voters made significant use of preference voting to rearrange party lists and elevate relatively uncorrupted newcomers over less-than-angelic party regulars.
  • The decline of Slovak-national parties:   The Slovak National Party (SNS) failed to pass the country’s threshold and followed in the footsteps of its former partner the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), the once-mighty electoral machine of Slovak politics, which fell below 5% in 2010 and in 2012 could not muster even a single percent.
  • The continued split among Hungarian-national parties: On the other side of Slovakia’s national divide, the Hungarian vote split nearly evenly between the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (SMK), which fell just below the 5% threshold, and Bridge (Most-Híd), which managed parliamentary representation with a 7% showing.

What happened in the campaign: 

The left ran smoothly; the right ran into a gorilla; other parties ran into each other

As with the results themselves, the world’s news sources had little doubt about the reason for the Smer victory: corruption.  The actual circumstances are more complicated, since surveys show a drop in right-wing party coalition well before the scandals hit the headlines.  By mid-2011, Fico’s Smer-SD was already polling consistently at levels sufficient for a one-party parliamentary majority.  As a result Smer-SD took almost no campaign risks.  It managed to avoid significant taint (even in scandals that concerned some of its own members), campaigned relentlessly on the key words “certainty” (istota) and “stability”, and maintained a unified, calm and confident voice all the way through.

The same cannot be said of Fico’s competitors.  Their election campaign itself was overshadowed by the “Gorilla scandal,” so called after the leak of an eponymously purported police file highlighting lucrative, mutually-beneficial deals between financial groups and the right-wing government in power between 2002 and 2006.  Gorilla cast a particular shadow over what was the leading government party, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union-Democratic Party (SDKÚ-DS).  Scandal had hit SDKÚ already in 2010 when allegations of campaign finance irregularities forced party leader and two-time former prime minister Mikuláš Dzurinda to resign from the party’s electoral list.  SDKÚ managed to recover by placing popular cabinet minister and presidential candidate Iveta Radičová at the top of its party list, but even after forming a coalition and becoming prime minister Radičová still faced intra-party challenges from Dzurinda and his allies.  Dzurinda regained his ballot position when Radičová withdrew from party competition after the vote of no confidence over the Greek bailout, but his intra-party victory put him directly in the line of fire over accusations in the Gorilla files that specifically concerned the period of his second government.  Dzurinda’s return thus accelerated the ongoing decline of SDKÚ-DS’s popular support, and the electoral verdict of his party’s own voters (Dzurinda received the preference vote support of only one sixth of his own party’s voters a drop from 165,000 in 2006 to just 27,000 in 2012) forced him to cede control of the party he had led from its inception in 2001.

SDKÚ’s partner, the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), managed to maintain its share of the vote from 2010 its reliance on its loyal electorate and its weak campaign (encapsulated in the ill-judged slogan ‘white Slovakia’) prevented it from capitalizing on SDKÚ-DS’s woes and taking clear leadership on Slovakia’s right.  The party did see a shift in preference votes toward younger and more energetic figures including party vice-chair Daniel Lipšič but did not (yet) move toward leadership change. 

Another party of the right, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), only narrowly scraped past the 5% threshold.  The party managed to hang on to some voters through its unique combination of libertarian morality and pro-market values and its prominent negative stance on the Euro bailout (a position so important to party leader Richard Sulík that he allowed his opposition to bring down the government of which he was a part), but it suffered from pre-election revelations of Sulík’s monthly meetings with dodgy businessmen.

Within the Hungarian electorate, neither of the contenders faced a similar taint but neither could boast of particular accomplishments or a particularly noteworthy campaign.  On the other end of the national spectrum the Slovak National Party did manage to attract attention, but only by pushing the boundaries of decorum.  In its 2010 campaign, SNS had projected aggressively xenophobic images of bandit Hungarians and indolent Roma with (photoshopped) chains and tattoos.  In 2012 the party went even further, borrowing liberally from anti-Semitic caricature and even internet pornography (one billboard featured a female model wearing only an EU-flag thong and the message “the EU is screwed.”)

Finally, the 2012 election produced its share of new parties.  Political upstarts are common not only in Slovakia but also in the Baltics and Bulgaria and recently even in Hungary (Jobbik, Politics Can Be Better), the Czech Republic (Public Affairs, TOP09), Poland (Polikot’s Movement), and Slovenia (Jankovic’s List, Virant’s List).   Igor Matovič, who had been elected unexpectedly on the SaS party list in 2010 through preference votes and then split from SaS, took full advantage of the corruption scandals (including a publicity stunt involving a revision of the Slovak seal replacing its hills and cross with a similarly-shaped gorilla and banana). 

A second new party, evocatively called “99%” briefly succeeded in attracting voters with a well-designed and lavishly-funded campaign, but quickly lost momentum as questions emerged about the sources of its spending and the possibility of systematic falsification of signatures on the party’s establishing petition.  With its final tally of only 1.6% of the vote, 99% suggests that there are limits on the degree of artificiality that even the most disillusioned voters are willing to accept from a new anti-corruption, anti-elite party.

What stayed the same?

Despite the shift in seats, the relative vote share of electoral blocs changed little.

Although the world’s news sources explained their election predictions on the basis of the corruption scandals—Reuters suggested that Slovaks were “Slovaks set to dump centre-right after graft scandal”—the actual footprints of the Gorilla-scandal appear to have been relatively shallow. The figure below suggests that although the scandal helped remove Dzurinda from SDKÚ and rearrange the composition of the right, it otherwise had little effect on overall preferences.

The figure above shows votes and seats for Slovakia’s four relatively distinct electoral blocs: left, right, Hungarian national (those of Hungarian ethnicity) and Slovak national (those of Slovak ethnicity for whom ethnicity is particularly important). Bloc-level voting among Slovakia’s right and among the Hungarian national parties was particularly stable: the relative percentage in these two categories has not changed by more than five percentage points over the four elections of the past decade (and not much before that). The other half of the political landscape saw a more significant shift—the decline of the Slovak-national parties and the rise of the economic left—but these two developments were almost perfectly reciprocal, and the overlap of themes suggests a high degree of compatibility between the voters in these two blocs.

The horizontal mid-line of the graph suggests that unlike the combination of left and Slovak-national parties, the coalition of right and Hungarian-national parties never actually constituted a majority of Slovakia’s voters. The right was able to form coalitions only in alliance with the left (as for a brief time in 1994 and again from 1998 to 2002) or by benefitting from fragmentation that pushed some left and Slovak-national parties below the 5% threshold (as in 2002 and again to a lesser extent in 2010).  In the 2012 election, threshold failures occurred on both sides and produced a roughly even redistribution of seats, but the combination of fragmentation among Slovak-national parties and consolidation of the left, meant the (almost) exclusive domination of this segment by Robert Fico’s party, Smer.

What changed?

Despite stable vote shares, some blocs lost seats when small parties fell below the 5% threshold.

The dynamics of public opinion are always filtered through the institutions of electoral politics and in Slovakia those institutions have recently made the difference between winners and losers. Party change more than voter change has produced most of Slovakia’s recent political volatility.

As an example, of such “supply-side” volatility, it is worth noting that while Slovak-national parties disappeared from parliament in 2012, the vote for Slovak nationalist parties actually changed relatively little. Together, parties using Slovak-national themes managed to win nearly 8%, only two points less than two years ago, but parliamentary representation dropped from 6% to none because of divisions in the nationalist vote. The 0.6% won by the breakaway Nation and Justice (NaS) or the 1.6% won by the People’s Party-Our Slovakia (LS-NS), would have been sufficient supplement to the 4.6% won by SNS to take the Slovak-nationalists back over the threshold and into parliament.

Similar institutional conflicts affected parliamentary representation on the Hungarian-national side, where Hungarians tended to form electoral coalitions or even common party structures to avoid the risk of falling below 5%. That changed  when former Hungarian party leader Bela Bugar broke away to form Most-Híd. Since the Hungarian parties tend to garner around 12% of the vote, there is only a narrow window in which two competing parties can both exceed the 5% threshold. In 2010 and 2012 both Hungarian parties remained competitive, but only Most-Híd passed the threshold while SMK just fell short.  The competition between the two parties may benefit Hungarians in the long run by helping to keep its parties responsive, but in the short run it has cost the Hungarian population two-fifths of its potential representation in parliament.

Perhaps the biggest institutional challenge lies on Slovakia’s right. Observers blame the right for losing the 2012 election, but as the figure above suggests, its combined vote was not much worse than in 2002 or 2006. The figure below indicates that its seat total is actually slightly higher than in 2006.

In retrospect, the exceptional election for the right may have been not 2012 or 2006 but 2010. In that year, four years of Fico government, with some sizeable scandals, sent some moderate, anti-corruption Smer voters across bloc lines to vote for anti-corruption right wing parties such as SaS. In 2012, by contrast, the right parties were the target of anti-corruption motivated votes and some migrated (back) to Smer, while others left for OĽaNO or a host of small new parties which had (so far) avoided the taint of the major parties. OĽaNO, however, has few of the attributes one would associate with a stable party and will be hard-pressed to survive this parliamentary term in one piece.

Much of Fico’s victory derives from his party building.  He maintained party unity and waited for other parties to fall apart. He thus secured near complete dominance of a large part of the political spectrum, consolidating the left under his leadership and attracting the support of the more nationalistically-inclined voters from his erstwhile coalition partners, SNS and HZDS. In 2010 this poaching proved self-destructive when it left him without a sufficiently large partner to form a coalition, but Smer’s larger base in 2012 could survive even the demise of its partners.

As the figure below shows, Fico’s Smer-SD gained an impressive number of seats in the 2012 election: 21 out of a 150 seat legislature. (Indeed the additional MPs in Fico’s party would, if they defected, immediately become the second largest party in parliament). The growth was the result both of transfer between sides (a swing of 12) and a nearly equal size transfer within his own side (a swing of 9 from SNS to Smer).

What happens now?

One-party government tests Slovakia’s institutional development.

The magnitude of Smer’s victory creates new risks and new rewards.  For the party, the victory is not entirely unambiguous.  Smer must now govern alone and unlike the 2006-2010 government—when the most viscerally-unpleasant corruption cases were those perpetrated by its coalition partners—it will not be able to escape close identification with everything that goes wrong.  The right benefitted from disillusioned anti-corruption voters in 2010 but Fico got some of those back in 2012 when the right seemed to behave no better.  The flow of those crucial swing voters in the next election will depend on what Smer does next.

When Fico left the communist-successor Party of the Democratic Left in 1999 to form Smer, observers asked whether he was “a man to be trusted or feared”? The question is even more relevant today. In the early 2000s, Fico offered Slovakia “new faces” and a “new direction.” In the 2012 campaign he offered the promise of certainty and stability. After a year and a half of the right’s fractious coalition government, a one-party Smer government can indeed offer more certainty and stability, but what kind of certainty and stability?The recent example of Hungary shows, the push for institutional stability can also threaten key mechanisms of accountability. Slovakia’s political institutions have thus far been protected by tense coalitions whose internal disagreements have hampered the ability to deliver fundamental change (good or bad).  Slovakia’s relatively flexible constitutional framework allows a united parliamentary majority to impose significant changes not only on policy but on the institutional structure, and the institutional manipulations of Viktor Orban in Hungary and Vladimír Mečiar in Slovakia the 1990’s offer worrying precedents.  But Fico is not Orban or Mečiar, and what Fico might want to do is less relevant than what he has actually done.  In practice Smer has refrained from reckless and self-serving changes to institutional boundaries. Fico’s post-election public statements and cabinet appointments suggest a degree of self-restraint that has impressed even some of his critics.  From his first post-election press conference, Fico has been keen to stress his pro-European credentials and to avoid the kind of international ostracism produced by inclusion of the SNS and HZDS in his 2006 coalition government.

If the moderation does not continue, Slovakia can now fall back on other institutional structures that have strengthened since the Meciar era. Slovakia’s civil society has also demonstrated its ability to play a vibrant (if not always decisive) role. The anti-gorilla demonstrations may not have had much overt impact on the election result, but they show the willingness of many Slovaks to come out onto the streets if given provocation.

Fico’s own party may also impose subtle limits on institutional change.  Smer remains Fico’s party, but organizational expansion has left the party with a variety of internal factions (and, some claim, financial sponsors) whose livelihoods depend on good relationships within the EU and a reputation for probity and stability. Fico’s last government rode a wave of economic growth which his predecessors had done much to create, but a new era of austerity limits his options.  He must be able to reward party members while at the same time avoiding corruption scandals at lower levels of government and controlling those who jumped on the Smer bandwagon to feather their own nests.

Self-restraint will be the key test of Fico’s second government.  Fico has periodically demonstrated an ability to take the long view, but Slovakia’s first single-party parliamentary majority will produce strong temptations to opt for short-term institutional gains for himself and financial gains for his supporters.  If Fico can resist those temptations, he may secure for himself a long future in politics and a place in Slovakia’s history.  If he cannot, then in 2016 he may again find himself on the losing end of electoral calculations.

  • by Kevin Deegan-Krause & Tim Haughton

    Kevin Deegan-Krause (to the right) is Associate Professor of Political Science at Wayne State University. Tim Haughton (to the left) is Senior Lecturer in the Politics of Central and Eastern Europe at the University of Birmingham and the 2011-12 Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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